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Family Traditions

by Lorna M. Kaine

She came back for me on a March day that felt more like July in hell. I’d finished work at the construction site where I was helping build another tacky development in the middle of a Florida swamp. I was on my way home and the only thought in my head was to get home to a cold beer. As I approached the intersection of Main and Jackson, I saw what looked like a collection of scarves with legs attached standing on the corner. Right in front of me, the rag person edged her foot over the curb.

What the...? The old bag’s gonna get creamed.

I hit the brakes. I didn’t want to spend the evening with the cops trying to explain how I ran down an old lady because she got in my way.

I could see her face now. That’s my grandma. The thought just popped into my head, but the more I stared at the hag, the more certain I became that she was my long-dead grandmother. By now my Ford crawled along slow as a snail on downers. As I watched, boggle-eyed, she stepped from the curb and slipped through the truck door and sat down next to me.

“Cat got your tongue?” she said, giving me the snaggle-toothed smile I remembered.

“How’d you do that?” I asked.

A cat with a mouse couldn’t have looked more pleased. “Nothin’ to it.”

“But you didn’t open the door.”

“Didn’t have to.”

“Did you hurt yourself passing through that metal?”

She didn’t answer the question, but said, “If you can’t make this thing go faster, I’ll have to project myself into your apartment. That would take more energy than I’m willing to expend, so step on the gas, Hubert.”

I cringed. Nobody else dared use that name. This whatever-it-was sitting next to me had Grandma’s tongue all right. I goosed the gas pedal making the Ford jump before it settled into following the traffic. “Better?” I asked the apparition.

“Good enough,” she answered.

“So what do you want?”

“Your soul.”

I was pretty sure she was kidding, but my teeth started to chatter, and when I exhaled I could see fog.

“You’re not serious, are you?” I didn’t know how she did it, but the temperature inside the truck cab kept falling. My hands were so cold I had trouble holding onto the wheel.

She didn’t give me an answer, just said “Later.” With that the old girl just sort of shriveled up, like somebody had stuck her with a pin and let the air out. There was nothing left on the seat but a greasy McDonald’s bag. The truck warmed up a bit, and I thought it was safe to turn on the radio. I tried to tune in my favorite country and western station, but couldn’t get anything but static. Grandma never did like my taste in music.

Fifteen minutes later I was in the parking lot in front of my apartment. “This is it,” I said to the bag as I opened my door. I really hoped Grandma wouldn’t materialize in the parking lot. I didn’t want to explain her presence to any of my friends.

I felt a little breeze inside the building’s hall, but didn’t see any old ladies. Perhaps she’d gone away to haunt somebody else, or maybe she was having difficulty getting herself together. In any event I told myself I hadn’t seen anything a few beers wouldn’t cure.

But there she was — inside my kitchen, her head in the refrigerator. “Don’t you eat?” she grumbled.

“Do you?”

“I can fake it, but there’s nothing in this refrigerator but beer. I was going to fix you some supper.”

“Well Grandma,” I reached around her for a beer, “I do eat, but I’d rather go to a restaurant where I can watch the waitresses and let somebody else do the cooking.

“By the way, how’d you get in here?”

She threw up her hands, a disgusted look on her face. “Get over it. Walls don’t mean a damn thing to me.

“You’ve got the same power, you know. I’ve come back to show you how to use it. My no-good son, your father, was supposed to pass on the information, but he’s off with another mortal.”

The beer went down my throat in a perfectly normal way. I looked around, the kitchen hadn’t changed. The grease spot on the stove hadn’t moved, the coffee maker hadn’t been washed since morning. The only difference was the little old lady who’d passed through the wall like it wasn’t there. She’d scared the bejesus out of me slipping through my truck door, and now she was telling me I could do the same thing. I needed to get to the bottom of this.

I pulled out a chair from the table, “Sit down,” I said. She sat. I settled on another chair across from her. I reached across the table for her hand. It was like trying to squeeze air.

With a look that could’ve frozen hell, she snapped, “Cut that out.”

She didn’t have to tell me twice.

“Okay, tell me what’s going on and why you’re here.” I got up and went the refrigerator for another Bud.

“That’s why I came. First of all your father’s run out on your mother again.”

“What are you talking about?” The second beer was gurgling its way into my stomach. My father hadn’t been much more than a shadow when I was a kid. He’d disappeared for good before I graduated from high school. My mom got run over by a car shortly afterwards. What was left for him to run out on?

Grandma’s dull eyes rolled in her head. “Shall we say your father wasn’t normal — in the human sense of the word?”

“That’s for sure. He slept half the day, covered himself up from head to heels if he had to go out in the daylight. Then sometimes he’d disappear for months at a time. What the hell was wrong with him?”

“Nothing a good meal wouldn’t fix.”

“I don’t recall him ever eating a meal with us.”

“He faced certain dietary restrictions.” She ran a ghostly hand across her forehead, then continued. “You might say he was on an early version of the Atkins Diet.”

“So that’s why Mom always bought so much red meat?”

Grandma nodded.

I was beginning to get the picture. “He wasn’t really a vam...?” I couldn’t get the word out.

“’Fraid so. I told him to stay away from mortals, but he wouldn’t listen. He saw your mother, and powie — he was a goner. Just couldn’t stay away from her.”

“Did she know?”

“Oh yes, but she was as besotted as he was.”

“So what are you?”

“In my way I was as foolish as your mother. I was a perfectly respectable ghost — came from a family of Druids in Britain. I’d been floating around, minding my own business when I met your grandpa. He was one of them, the bloodsuckers.”

“Was he alive, er, uh, undead, when I was a kid?”

Grandma smiled. “Let’s just say he hung around. He was proud of you, but he didn’t want to complicate your life.”

I looked around the room. Could there be a large bat in the broom closet?

“Is he still around?”

“No, a tree fell on him during a bad storm and a branch went right through his heart. He’s really dead.”

“What about my father?”

She clenched and unclenched her hands. Nothing like having a nervous ghost/grandmother sitting in your kitchen, I thought.

“He’s never been able to get over his infatuation with mortals. When your mother passed over, the two of them flew around together for a long time, happy as a pair of courting crows. But he couldn’t stay faithful even if she was now truly one of the family. He started up with his old habits. Any time he’d see a good looking mortal girl, he’d fly right after her.” I interrupted.

“So now Mom’s alone again?”

Grandma bobbed her head up and down. “She sent me to come and get you, said you might as well settle in with a good looking ghost girl instead of some fly-by-night human.”

“But Grandma,” I began, “I like living here. I like having a real life.”

“But you’re not really human. Get used to it. You’re half-undead. Besides, you owe your mother. Think of all the years she took care of you.”

I stood up. It was definitely time for beer three. “I don’t know,” I said to Grandma, my head in the refrigerator. “This takes some getting used to.” I twisted off the bottle cap and tilted the bottle. Somehow I knew all the beer in the world wouldn’t solve my problem.

“Look Grandma,” I said, resuming my seat at the table, “I have a girl friend. She’s not going to stay around if she knows I’m undead.”

“Not necessarily. Remember, you’re your father’s son. He’s like catnip to mortal girls.”

I polished off the beer. “Why can’t Mom just hover around here if she’s so lonesome?”

“In your present state you can’t talk to her.”

“Yeah, but you told me I had the power to pass through walls. Why don’t I have the power to talk to my mother?”

“Passing through walls is nothing. We just have to rearrange your molecules a bit so they can pass through the spaces in other molecules, but talking to wraiths is a skill you can’t acquire unless you come with me.”

She smirked. “You might say I’m the queen bee of ghosts — the top model. I can make myself visible to you and talk to you because of all the years I’ve had to practice my arts, but you know nothing. Your mother’s still got a lot to learn. She may be able to communicate with you as one mortal to another in another few hundred years, but by then you’ll be one of us. She’s depressed now. The state she’s in – who knows? She might do something rash like impale herself on a wooden stake.”

Grandma pushed back her chair and stood. I was waiting for her to rise to the ceiling or something, but she held out her hands to me. “Come with me,” she crooned.

“What about my girl?”

Her obsidian eyes held mine. “Come, do you want to be mortal all of your life?”

She had a point. I worked like a dog all day laying block at construction sites. I wasn’t getting any younger, and unless I won the lottery, I wasn’t ever going to be rich. Floating around the nether world mightn’t be all bad. If my old man could spend hundreds of years seducing human women, so could I.

Grandma’s voice kept murmuring, “Relax, let each molecule in your body relax, feel them rearranging themselves within the shell of your being. She took my hand. This time I felt the wispy pressure of her fingers. “Come, my darling.”

With no effort on my part we floated through the kitchen wall. When we got to the parking lot, she pushed me into the Ford’s passenger seat. Before long we were rolling down a country road. I didn’t feel a thing when Grandma wound my truck around a tree, but floating over the accident scene with her was awesome.

I’m still learning to cope with my undead state, but there’s no hurry. After all, unless a tree falls on me, I’ve got all eternity.

Copyright © 2006 by Lorna M. Kaine

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